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TV's Duty to Kids

When Cookie Monster, that insatiable Sesame Street snacker, has been required by his bosses to wipe off some of those crumbs and make the point that cookies are only a “sometime” food, you know there is a problem.

And there is a problem. A Washington suburban school system's food service says it can't serve healthier foods because the kids won't eat them. So they are sticking with chicken fingers, nachos and pizza.

At the same time, Physical Education classes are disappearing from schools, phased out for reasons that remain a mystery to most of us raised on presidential calls for physical fitness.

All of that is by way of illustrating the problem of childhood obesity.

TV certainly contributes to keeping kids sedentary—but it is being given a run for its money by Internet chat rooms and videogames and even, some people say, by heavy loads of homework imposed on the Advanced Placement wannabes.

But nobody pitches candy and snacks and soda better than television. According to a new Kaiser Foundation study, kids 8 to 12 years old see an average of 21 food ads a day—more than 7,600 a year—mostly for food that isn't really good for them. Teenagers see at least 17 food ads a day, or about 6,000 a year.

That marketing engine needs to take it down a peg when it comes to kids, and ad-industry executives insist they are already reducing their advertising to address the complaints. Dan Jaffe, of the Association of National Advertisers, took issue with the Kaiser data, noting that the study monitored TV in 2005, before advertisers began cleaning up their acts. Two-thirds of the food and beverage marketers have pledged to balance their kid-targeted campaigns, with at least 50% of the ads promoting healthy, or at least healthier, foods.

Disney has strict guidelines for the types of foods it allows Mickey and the gang to stand behind, and numerous media companies have ongoing nutrition/exercise public-service campaigns.

You can lead a kid to broccoli or spinach—as SpongeBob is trying to do—but marketers and even schools can't necessarily make them eat it. Parents are part of the equation, too, and should be modeling healthier eating choices and monitoring their kids' diets more carefully.

The problem is undeniable. The Centers for Disease Control says that, since 1980, the number of overweight children has doubled and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled.

That has to stop, or the national health issues, both in terms of quality of life and health-care costs, will be staggering. The life span of the next generation could conceivably go down for the first time in history. We are becoming a nation of gluttons. That is a national disgrace.

Government has a real role here. It needs to require healthier lunch choices, it needs to fund nutrition education, and it needs to get kids back out on the playground.

The government/industry Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity held its first meeting two weeks ago, setting a July deadline to report back to the FCC on new initiatives, partnerships and best practices. If it can avoid finger-pointing or devolving into calls for overzealous government regulations, it can meet that goal. Media members, activists, FCC commissioners, the ad and food executives were all in a room together, saying, with essentially one voice, that it is past time for talking and high time for action. No industry has to be hurt here. But millions of kids need to be helped.